Duncan McNab is a former NSW policeman and private investigator, and author of Getting Away With Murder (released 2017), focused on the epidemic of gay-hate crimes in Sydney between 1977 and 1986. Featured in Deep Water - The Real Story, he speaks of the police processes of the time and since leaving the police force, has uncovered new information about unsolved cases thought to be gay hate crimes.
Joining the NSW Police in 1977 seemed like a good idea at the time. It offered adventure, reasonable pay and a life utterly different from my parent’s hopes for me to finish law school or join the public service. In theory, a police force should reflect the community it serves, but what I found was a culture about 30 years' behind.
The selection process took a cookie cutter approach, requiring height and weight in proportion within a specific range and a basic education, confirmed by spelling and composition tests in which 50 percent was the pass mark. If you’d been to university you were tagged as an ‘academic’. My initial training class had four women out of around sixty recruits, and everyone was from an Anglo-Saxon background. Affirming rather than swearing your oath of office was viewed with suspicion. Being openly or discreetly gay was something other people might do, but not members of the clannish NSW Police. Brotherhood was the message drummed in from the very first day and permeated every moment from the parade ground to the classroom. Being different was discouraged. It was an organisation in which the cold hand of the passionately homophobic Commissioner Colin Delaney (1952 to 1962) could still be felt. He’d told a Sydney Rotary Club lunch in 1958 that homosexuality was Australia’s ‘greatest menace’.
Under his rule, detectives lurked in the city’s public toilets and parks, with younger officers offering come-hither looks – known as peanutting – to lure gay men so they could charge them with the plentiful crimes on offer under the Crimes Act 1900. Men caught having consensual sex were frequently and vigorously prosecuted for indecent assaults and ‘the abominable crime of buggery’. Men who reported attacks were often taken into the cells for a ‘flogging’ while other police turned a blind eye to these cowardly stunts. To complain was a career killer.
This odious and intolerant culture was lingering when I joined. We had gatherings of like-minded souls like the Catholics, Masons and the religion of Police Rugby League, where ‘touch football’ ended up with broken bones and bruises, but we didn’t have the ‘friends of Dorothy’ – the blokes would have choked on their cleansing ales.
In the years between my arrival and leading up to decriminalisation in 1984, the vigour to prosecute consenting males waned due to a combination of factors, including the political campaigns, retirement of a generation of police who’d embraced Delaney’s attitude, and the gay community’s growing political and media clout. The last major anti-gay outing was in 1983 when teams of detectives repeatedly raided Club 80, a bar and sex premise venue just off Oxford Street, in Sydney's Darlinghurst. The community reaction was massive with public protests, and the creative approach of delivering Statutory Declarations to the police admitting the declarant had had consensual, but still illegal, sex with another man. The coppers got the message and declined to act. The bullies had been bested.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1980/81 that I woke up to the appalling police treatment of the gay community. A man around what is now my age was found face down in the drain hole of a urinal in the men’s change room at Collaroy beach – a mile from where I’d grown up. He was alive but had been savagely beaten and we’d found his intact eyebrow attached to a jagged weld in the drain.
When I hit my teens, my ex-cop father warned me that ‘poofters’ often lurked in such places in the evening. I found the notion more intriguing than abhorrent but hadn’t summoned the guts to investigate. Sydney’s northern beaches of the 70s were bleached white, football fancying and not tolerant of difference – diversity was on the other side of the Harbour Bridge. What shook me from my torpor was the victim’s reaction to us. We’d worked the case in the possibility it may end up as a murder, and rushed to the hospital when his diagnosis improved and he’d regained consciousness. He didn’t want to talk and was obviously more scared of us and of the impact on his life than the brutal crime.
It prompted me to be alert to my surroundings. Police operated on the assumption that no one in the force was gay. Like Monty Python’s ‘University of Woolloomooloo’ rules there were ‘no poofters’. But police are gossips, and if you liked classical music, the ABC, didn’t drink beer, and were reputed to have an interest in theatre, the rumour mill was busy. If you were female and didn’t fall into the cot with every male copper who thought he was irresistible, a rumour about your sexuality would do the rounds. What distinguished the gossipers was their lack of spine. When you walked into their orbit, conversations stopped and were replaced by furtive looks. They’d talk about you but seldom to you.
The force was an intriguing blend of people like these, balanced by those who didn’t care or didn’t want to know. Thinking about it decades later, the most corrupt police I met were also the most memorably homophobic.
Being different didn’t do much for your career prospects, and in my case, the added problem was my outspokenness. In the police, you’re supposed to respect both the person and their rank, but I had problems with the former. The twin problems of waking up to the endemic corruption and a badly sprained ankle - "Football?" asked my boss as I hobbled into the office. "Ballet class," I replied - prompted my career decline. It was downhill from there, and instead of a transfer to the squad of my choice, I was sent to a dumping ground – another police tactic to avoid confrontation - and it worked. I resigned.
There have been huge changes in the police culture since those times, but the resistance to acknowledge the dark past and the appalling and occasional willful errors remains. The NSW Police are seldom sorry.